I’m starting a new year in which my oldest is in high school (!) and my youngest is in Pull-Ups. Repeating the mantra, “No one goes to college in diapers,” I have decided that the latter issue will work itself out somehow, sometime. (After six kids, somehow potty training continues to be a weakness of mine – insert shrug emoji here).
My parenting right now spans a wide range of human experience. On the one end, we are having conversations about college, consensual sexual relationships, responsibility, and time management. On the other end, we are having conversations about whether wiping one’s butt is mandatory after defecating (spoiler: yes), how the volume of “synagogue voice” is different from “kindergarten classroom voice,” and how a person has to at least try eating broccoli if they are interested in having dessert.
I have been fortunate enough to have been blessed with great fertility, irrationally large childbearing hips, and a profound lack of understanding of what I can handle — so here I am with six kids whose ages span 12 years. It is a rich and full life that starts at 5:30 in the morning with someone prying open my eyeballs to tell me they lost their Elsa cape, and ends around 10 at night in a puddle of my drool on the couch, where I usually find myself surrounded by teenagers who abandon their smelly socks around the house with abandon and need to be told to turn off their phones and go to bed. It is always busy, always frustrating, and always a source of entertainment.
Having this many kids has humbled me. Every day, I set new goals for myself (“Do not scream or cry today!”) that I aspire to meet. And lately, as my kids adjust to the new responsibilities of the new school year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the profound contrast in parenting teens to parenting younger kids. Basically, it’s about the power of words and silences.
Being a parent to younger children means talking constantly. It starts with the endless narration to both mitigate boredom and to teach language — “Let’s go to the supermarket and get some plums. Do you see anything else that begins with the letter P?” — and builds from there. As a parent of younger children, you are a teacher with no days off. You are asked questions like “What makes fog?”“Why do people die?” or “How do I make my bed?” If I had a FitBit for words, it would be blowing up with fireworks every day.
Having older children makes you enjoy and be more patient with the younger children’s endless barrage of questions, because crossing over into the teen years can mean crossing into the era of barren silences and grunts. Your teenagers may want to text endlessly with their friends, but that does not necessarily mean they want to share their thoughts or feelings with you. Not only are they no longer asking you things, but they are also often making assumptions about what they should do that are woefully, sadly incorrect (“I couldn’t open the shampoo, so I decided I’d just wet my hair this week,” for example, or, “I didn’t write milk on the shopping list because I figured you knew that already.” Based on a true story!).
For me, one of the more surprising things about parenting teenagers has been that, while talking more with little kids is the best policy, talking less with teens is absolutely the way to go. I am a very passionate and expressive person, so sometimes I literally have to bite my tongue when I listen to my wonderful teenage boys to keep from saying things like “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?” whether it is about location (town park, late at night), choices (phone rather than schoolwork), or activities amidst a particular weather pattern (skateboarding in pouring rain).
In theory, it would be possible for me be in conflict with my teens all the time. Instead, I take a deep breath and listen. I try to figure out what motivates their choices, and quickly and quietly assess what I can do to redirect their thinking (“I think it’s going to rain – maybe you guys could go to Dunkin Donuts and I’ll pick you up there in a half hour?”). When they do choose to confide in me, I don’t interrogate the way I would my 3-year-old — instead, I wait. It is not my nature at all, but I do it. And I find that, with silence, they will often volunteer another bit of information. And suddenly, it’s no longer a potential conflict, it’s a conversation.
With six kids, I’ll readily admit it’s hard to recalibrate these approaches, especially when all of them seem to need my attention at the exact same moment. (Usually, it is in the five minutes a day I am on the phone or on the toilet).
During services at Rosh Hashanah this week — in the moments I wasn’t taking someone to the bathroom — I sat imagining how it must be for God, “our Father, our King,” to look at each one of us and our deeds, like sheep beneath the shepherd’s staff. In the Unetaneh Tokef, the prayer that describes how God reviews our lives, it says that there is the blast of the shofar, and “a still, small voice is heard.”
What is that still, small voice? The prayer doesn’t clarify that point, but I think it is the spark inside of each of us that echoes the image of God — that unique light that makes each one of us holy. Yes, it might not be fashionable, but every year around this time I am reminded of how I do believe in God, and how my life is motivated by the sense of the holiness in each person.
So that’s my parenting goal for the year: to aspire to the divine. Just as we implore God on Yom Kippur to be more slow to anger and more quick to forgive, I also want to be more slow to anger and more quick to forgive. I think God listens to my silences as well as my speech, my intentions as well as my actions, and I want to do the same for my own children. I hope God (and my kids) have mercy on me and give me strength — I could definitely use both.